Dir/scr. Marat Sarulu. Kazakhstan/Germany/France/Russia. 2008. 80mins.
In spite of the bad rap the nation got in Borat, Kazakhstan’s huge, spare but stunning land of rolling hills and endless steppes has combined with the country’s growing film infrastructure to produce some of the most arresting recent movies. Now into the ranks of the most accomplished Kazakh films (Shuga and Kairat, Tulpan, Nomad, Mongol) comes Kyrgyz Marat Sarulu’s Song From the Southern Seas, an excellent example of accessible, cinema-specific, multilayered narrative .
This compact work, energized by the yin and yang of assorted conflicts (ethnic, generational, familial), focuses chiefly on the love-hate relationship between indigenous Kazakhs and Russian immigrants who have lived side by side for decades. Creative distributors could squeeze a cult/art movie out of it: its concerns are universal. The film is a natural for film festivals, with possible interest in ancillary riding the crest of a small but significant theatrical wave.
Maria (Agejkina), a heavyset, pallid Russian woman, gives birth to a son with the swarthy complexion of a Kazakh. Her pasty, burly Russian husband, Ivan (Yavorsky), with whom she fights constantly in outdoor scenes played wisely for humor, assumes she has been messing about with his best friend and neighbor, Asan (Kunguzhinov), a Kazakh, whose wife, Aisha (Ajtenova), is Maria’s close pal. (All four have few choices in friends: Their adjacent rural homes are isolated from everyone else.)
Following a 15-year break, we learn that the son, Sasha, has become an accomplished equestrian - not to mention a rustler - in the Kazakh tradition, and that the rift between the two couples has never healed. As remote as they are, the schism has also undermined the two marriages.
The troubled husbands, prisoners of their own machismo, deal with their problems by not dealing with their problems. They run off, separately, on motorcycles, making what turn out to be cathartic cross-country journeys, mini-road movies which counter the alcohol-induced rapprochement between the housebound wives who have been left to fend for themselves.
When Ivan visits his elderly grandfather, the old man tells him a well-guarded secret: how his own Russian father came to Kazakhstan in the early twentieth century, and, to the horror of his own family and the Kazak and Russian leadership, converted to Islam so that he could marry the Kazakh woman he loved.
Sarulu successfully blends historical and political antecedents with the more contemporary family drama. The divisiveness that defines the main characters in the first part of the film morphs into a reconfigured sense of unity once the repressed stories that had been regarded as shameful slip out of the closet. Kazakh folk music and haunting chords complement the stunning natural visuals.
Sarulu has made a daring artistic decision to use non-narrative inserts of hand-drawn shadow puppets, their dialogue providing oblique commentary on the film’s live action, which has the effect of yanking the viewer out of the frenetic live action while simultaneously intensifying its impact.
Sarulu was co-screenwriter of The Adopted Son (Beshkempir) and writer/director of My Brother Silk Road, both of which shared the anthropological bent of Song From the Southern Seas as well as its empathy for outsiders within families-black sheep.
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Guillaume de Seille